It’s so counter-intuitive, but years of fad diets and media exposure have got us all thinking ridiculous things about health and fitness, and two bug-bear myths of mine are that carbs are bad, and that you should aim for a very low caloric intake (circa 1,200) to lose weight.
*Note, as always, I’m not a nutritionist (I’m studying a Nutritional Therapist Professional Diploma but in terms of finished study I’ve only formally studied limited nutrition components of my fitness certifications so I AM NOT QUALIFIED TO GIVE FORMAL ADVICE), but my sources for this info are qualified and I believe highly trustworthy, including my nutritionist and her book, and a lifetime of research and experimentation – I’ll link to the articles and papers where I can! Always consult a professional to tailor to YOUR lifestyle though – I’m just sharing this to get people out of the mindset that carbs = bad, and eating as little as possible = optimal for fat loss.*
Obviously at a very basic level, you need to burn more calories than you eat to be losing fat – but you also need energy to function, be healthy and do all kinds of other things for your body and brain long-term. For weight loss / body composition that lasts and doesn’t damage you (and future you!) in the process, you need to adopt healthy ways of eating that provide you with all of the nutrition you need that are SUSTAINABLE first and foremost.
I remember when I’d recovered from bulimia but then gained a tonne of weight due to a damaged metabolism and over-indulgence in alcohol (and carried too much fat and really didn’t like it!) I still wasn’t eating much, and I avoided carbs at ALL COSTS because I thought they were the devil. I also avoided fruit at all costs because of the sugar (i.e. carb) element which is crazy! I’m going to share some extracts below from people who ARE qualified as to how and why these foods are not only safe to eat (in the right quantities) but very beneficial.
Why you should eat carbs – even if you want to lose fat!
Carbs are SO IMPORTANT for your health, both physical and mental. They’re the body and brain’s main energy source (and eliminating them does NOT mean you’ll just burn body fat I’m afraid!) and they also are key to forming serotonin. They are critical for brain function, mood and memory (read more on this here).
A study published in 2009 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people on a high-fat, low-carb diet for a year had more anxiety, depression and anger than people on a low-fat, high-carb diet. – LiveScience.com
Eating complex carbohydrates in combination with lean protein and healthy fats (which prevent the carbs giving you too much of a blood sugar spike) keeps you fuller for longer. The combination of carbs and protein is also necessary for your body to use the tryptophan in certain foods to produce serotonin, the happy hormone – very important if you are prone to low moods!
Carbs are fuel, but don’t get it into your head that fuel means calories and gaining weight – carbohydrate is used by the body as fuel for the central nervous system, and energy for your working muscles. Iowa State University also found that they prevent protein from being used as an energy source (so more protein for muscle gain and other benefits!) and enable fat metabolism.
At my leanest and healthiest (this time last year when I did a shred for Santorini!) I was eating MORE CARBS than I ever really had before.
Now I’m not for ONE SECOND saying go and binge or go over-eat. Portion control is key, but the irony is when I was too thin and sick with bulimia and body dysmorphia, and when I got fat post-recovery, I was eating measly 500-950 kcals a day at the height of my ED and only 1,200 when I was getting bigger.
When I leaned down again in a healthy way I was eating nearer 2,000 kcals a day and still do!
Now obviously if your goal is fat loss, you need good activity levels (aim to sweat 4-5 times a week for around 45 minutes at least!) to ensure you’re using the energy you’re consuming, and I know an anecdotal story about my journey isn’t ‘evidence’ but this post links to the studies which back these things up and I want to emphasise that doing the healthy, balanced thing really IS compatible with your body goals…
If you’re hangry and carb-deprived, not only is it bad from a mood, memory, brain function and energy for your working muscles and central nervous system perspective, but you’re less likely to stick to a healthy lifestyle and keep the excess body fat off long term.
The best carbs to choose
When my abs were most visible, I was training well and eating well – and that included carbs which I’d avoided previously pretty much my whole life!
Complex carbohydrates are always going to be much better for you than simple carbs (so think brown rice and sweet potato over white bread and French fries!)
My favourite sources that are perfectly healthy in sensible quantities include:
- brown rice
- sweet potato
- white potato (YES WHITE POTATO! It has a slightly different nutrient profile to the sweet variety but both are great for you. It’s all in how you cook it of course!)
- quinoa / other wholegrains
- rye bread
- pulses and legumes
Of course you can occasionally have the rubbishy white bread if you fancy it it’s totally fine, but if 90% of the time your carbs come from these sources to maximise the nutritional benefits.
Why we need to stop believing it’s a virtue to not have an appetite
Overeating isn’t good, but neither is under-eating. A rough guide to portion size is half a plate of veggies (yay micronutrients!), a fistful of carbs, a palm full of protein and a thumb-print of healthy fats.
I get so frustrated when people seem to say that having barely any appetite is a virtue. ‘Oh I / he / she just don’t/doesn’t really have an appetite’ – when I was bulimic I’d absorbed these kinds of messages and would try to see how long I could go without food for, and throw it up when I caved. Idolising this not-being-hungry or extreme deprivation that you only eat a bit of fish and some veggies mindset leads to unhealthy attitudes and can seriously damage peoples’ health, mental and physical.
You can eat quite large portions of voluminous veggies and get all the micronutrient benefits with very little caloric intake – so you can be full and eat those for volume, and still stick to healthy-sized portions of protein, carbs and healthy fats – and I’m not talking as small as possible! I’m talking the kind of portion sizes described above, as recommended by top Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert in her book.
Obviously how much you need to eat also depends on your metabolism and your activity levels. This is why seeing a professional to tailor specific guidance to you is really helpful.
But by eating very little (i.e. less than 1,500 kcals a day) you slow your metabolism, meaning when you do indulge you’re more likely to store it as fat, and also reducing the likelihood that you’re getting the energy and nutrition levels you need to function optimally.
This is another reason I worry about people thinking they key is to surpress their appetite. What happens when you reach your goal weight and return to your old ways of eating? It all piles back on. We need to change our lifestyles and keep them healthy and sustainable, and provided you stoke the fires of your metabolism (and take out your nutritional insurance policy for optimum health in old age!) by eating CARBS AND PROTEIN AND HEALTHY FATS as well as all your micronutrients from a rainbow of veggies, we maintain not only healthier bodies, but an aesthetic that we like a lot more!
As discussed above, I’m not a nutritionist so use this as a jumping off point not gospel, and check my sources as you would any randomer on the internet – don’t trust me just because I have a fitness blog, or someone else just because they have abs! That said, I have done my best to research this extensively and only share info from sources I believe are trustworthy (and cite them!) As I said, check out this book ReNourish by my nutritionist for more information and some of the links below to get you started. You don’t need to be a professional to educate yourself and optimise your health!
What are Carbohydrates? – LiveScience.com
Stop Carbohydrate Shaming – Hipandhealthy.com
STOP SHAMING CARBOHYDRATES
Cutting carbohydrates from meals was once hailed as the answer to fast track fat loss. The Atkins and so many other fad diets all avoid bread, potatoes and pasta in favour of loading up on protein sources like eggs. And so began a widespread misconception that carbs make you fat. As a general rule of thumb, a low carbohydrate meal is healthy but the degree to which we enforce a low-carb diet is wholly dependant on the life we lead. The key is to find a balance and understand exactly what carbs to embrace and those we should avoid.
Opt for grains over refined starchy items like white pasta, bread. Grains are significantly more nutritious with tons of nutrients. Quinoa, amaranth, pearl barley, bulgar wheat and spelt are some of my favourite complex carbs. All are high in fibre, which is great for your digestive system, the nutritious carbs including oats tend to offer slow releasing energy keeping you fuller for longer.